Some say motor racing started the day the second motor car was made, others – more poetic and romantic in thought – say that motor racing started the day Tazio Nuvolari took to the track for the first time.
They say he did a deal with the devil; sold his soul in exchange for unfathomable bravery and a fierce determination. They say he knew no fear and that only he could outrun death. For these reasons and more, Tazio Nuvolari from Mantua – the man known as ‘Il Mantovano Volante, The Flying Mantuan’ – stands head and shoulders above anyone else as arguably the greatest racing driver to have ever grasped the wheel of a racing car and ripped up the race-tracks and roads of the world. If any driver could be mistaken for a fictional hero from the pages of a story book, it’s Nuvolari. His exploits behind the wheel and the dramas of many a gruelling race – both won and lost – appear at times to have been exaggerated by the passage of time but are every bit as true today as they were 80 years ago.
In a time when motor racing was in its infancy – considered a game for mad men and suicidal thrill-seekers – Nuvolari mastered the sport like few others and became the master of his own reckless style of four-wheel drifts and flat-out, fearless driving.
The First World War postponed his debut – on motorcycles – until 1920, by which time he was already 28. For 10 years he was a winner on both two and four wheels, but after 1930 he concentrated solely on cars and the true legend of Nuvolari gathered pace.
Nuvolari never tamed a car; he was never in charge of the raging beasts at his fingertips; Tazio’s genius was in allowing the car to do what it wanted and nobody could emulate that understanding or ability. Oversteer? Understeer? Irrelevant. All that mattered was more accelerator, less brake and overtaking whoever was in front of him, be it for victory or tenth place; nobody was safe from Nuvolari’s pure will to be ahead.
Although at different times he drove Bugattis, Maseratis and Auto Unions, his name will be for ever synonymous with Alfa Romeo, with whom the majority of his celebrated successes came. It was a fusion of Italian excellence and it would inspire a generation.
The 1930 Mille Miglia was one such example of Nuvolari‘s impeccable ability behind the wheel of an Alfa. Back then, the one-thousand mile race around Italy lasted more than 16 hours, finishing in darkness. It developed into the anticipated battle between Nuvolari and his greatest rival – Achille Varzi. In the closing stages, with the narrow bridge of Goito behind them, the tormenting twists of the Apennines forgotten, and the inviting ribbon of road through the Po Valley laying before them Varzi began to suspect that the game was lost; although ahead on the road, he recognised in his mirror the headlights of Nuvolari’s car – and Tazio’s start time had been 10 minutes later. “It’s him,” Varzi mouthed to his co-driver. But soon the hope returned as the lights behind disappeared, along with – it would seem – the threat of Nuvolari. Only a fool would assume Nuvolari had made a mistake but mechanical failure could very well have scuppered Tazio’s challenge? Was Nuvolari out?
He was not. For Tazio, it was vital not only to beat Achille on time, but also to lead him into Brescia, where the race finished. Within 30 miles of the end, Varzi was shaken from thoughts of victory by the blast of a horn and a furious flash of light and speed. Nuvolari – his own lights switched off – had been sitting there for miles, shadowing Varzi, guided by the brake lights of his rival’s Alfa, stalking him like a predator until the time to pounce came.
Leaving Varzi no time to respond to his astonishing act of cunning, Nuvolari disappeared into the night and onwards to victory. Tazio had not only out-thought and out-driven his rival but he cheated death by driving head-on into the inky blackness of night at terrifying speed and coming out the other side alive and victorious.
Much later, Varzi would reveal that whilst still consumed by the bitterness of defeat, he had found consolation in the compliment paid by the man even he referred to as ‘Maestro.’ It takes faith – and more – to rely on another to guide you through the mountains at night.
This was perhaps Nuvolari’s greatest triumph but it is just a drop in an ocean full of remarkable tales; tales so astounding they verge on being unbelievable but believe it; Tazio Nuvolari is the fastest driver of past, present and future; there will never be another driver like him.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the great Nuvolari’s death; they say the reason he died was because he stopped racing…and death finally caught up with him.